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Published: 2013/03/10
by Marc Shapiro

Memories of Bob Marley from the Disciplined Watcher and the Godfather of Reggae Bass

While Family Man plays a Fender Jazz Bass these days, his first instrument was as low budget as it comes.

Working as an electrical welder, bike mechanic and blacksmith, the ever-crafty Family Man made his first bass, which had one-string, by nailing together a curtain rod, wooden board and an ashtray for the bridge.

“When I pick it, it go ‘ping ping ping,’” he said, as he played air-bass with his fingers.

His brother, Carly Barrett, made a drum set using a wood platform, empty paint cans for drums and placing a piece of wood upright in the platform to hold a cymbal.

“He have his heal hitting the floor, went ‘boom boom’ like the foot drum,” Family Man said. “And that’s where drum and bass dub was born.”

The Barrett brothers would earn a reputation as the definitive Jamaican rhythm section as members of pioneering reggae producer Lee “Scratch” Perry’s band, The Upsetters.

In the early 70s, when Family Man and Carly first played with Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston (later known as Bunny Wailer), the bassist knew in his heart that the group had astronomical potential.

“We feel it deep within,” he said. “We know it different and it so special. Reggae music here because it carry the messages of roots, culture and reality.”

Family Man became the band leader, recruiting the musicians in Bob Marley & The Wailers, writing the band’s thumping, melodic bass lines, co-producing albums and arranging songs. Early on, he gave himself the nickname he’s known by these days, not wanting to be seen as the ‘band leader’ or the ‘boss.’

“I said, ‘We all have to work and live together as a family, so the one who is in charge to keep that unity, that’s to be the Family Man.’ And the name became a legend,” he said.

Over time, the nickname he gave himself has become exceedingly appropriate, having fathered more than 50 children.

The Disciplined Watcher

In the late 70s, Roger Steffens was co-hosting an NPR radio show in Los Angeles called Reggae Beat, when Island Records called to see if he would go on the road with Bob Marley & The Wailers.

He happily accepted, and spent about 10 days with the band and Bob, who was the first interviewee on Reggae Beat. While Steffens was awe struck for most of those 10 days, through the years he came to know Bob as a quiet watcher.

“If I had to choose one word about Bob it would be ‘disciplined,’” he said. “He was incredibly disciplined.”

Steffens recalled Bob spending about three hours – playing every single instrument – on sound check at his last show in Los Angeles, which was a benefit for Sugar Ray Robinson’s foundation. Because all the big Hollywood names in the music and movie scenes were coming, Bob had to make sure the sound was perfect, Steffens said.

He also remembered Bob’s selfless generosity, noting that he supported about 6,000 people a month, a number Steffens confirmed with Bob’s business manager.

“So, he was very different from your average millionaire rockstar,” he said. “As he said often, ‘I live for other people, my life is not for myself,’ and I saw the positive impact of that belief.”

Bob, at 24, told friends he would die at age 36. And although he had cancer for the last four years of his life, he toured until playing his final show on Sept. 23, 1980, in Pittsburgh. Bob was 35 at that show.

“When they discovered [the cancer], it was already third stage,” Steffens said. “So that explains the relentless touring and work that he did in those last years of his life…he had to accomplish as much as he humanly could and more before it was his time to leave.”

The Wailers After Bob

When Bob Marley died on May 11, 1981, at age 36, there was no doubt in Family Man’s mind that he would keep playing music, having been on the road since 1969, before Bob Marley & The Wailers were a band.

But it’s hard to define The Wailers these days, Steffens said, since Family Man is the only original member left. Even though there are no other Marley-era Wailers in the band, Family Man still surrounds himself with high-caliber musicians who have a history in reggae, such as keyboardist Keith Sterling, who was a member of Peter Tosh’s backing band after Tosh left The Wailers and went solo.

“It’s very hard for people to have a handle on who or what The Wailers are in 2013, but any band that has Family Man in it has the right to be called The Wailers,” Steffens said.

Family Man, who said he was voluntarily ‘chosen from the heavens to come down to earth’ remains positive and focused, and still feels the magic he felt when he and his brother first jammed on their homemade instruments.

“I always have to keep that meditation and that vibes, ya know, keep pushing,” he said. “I am designed to make people happy. Heh heh heh heh.”

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